Author Empathy: 9
Manohla Dargis’s review of Avatar is such a pleasant read because the form of her prose expresses the feelings she attributes to James Cameron’s film. You can really see this in her last sentence: “He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.” Here she has started with the stated expectation of the film—to change cinema forever—and parsed it down in a way that plays favorably to the movie’s fantastic form. “Blooms,” for instance, is a great choice over the more common “blossoms” because it suggests that the flowers onscreen are not meant to be flowers but sustained bursts of light shaped after some fantastic flourish in nature—but meant to be a fantastic flourish of cinema.
Not all of Dargis’s article is so discerningly penned, but the moments where it seems moderation was moderated service the message: it’s okay to get giddy about this movie. All circumstances being equal, most writers of editorial essays in newspapers favor short, simple sentences in their first paragraph(s). Now it’s true that circumstances are never equal (a writer’s style is the first thing to upset the balance) but Dargis’s first paragraph is made of three teetering layercake sentences. It’s against common wisdom but I think it works.
Dargis’s review is a great case study of how the way things are written manipulates our sentiments as we read it. To highlight my point I’ll catalog the points where Dargis best manipulates the form of her essay to add excitement. Bear with me, the first quote is a doozy. (The rest will be quicker.)
Several decades in the dreaming and more than four years in the actual making, the movie is a song to the natural world that was largely produced with software, an Emersonian exploration of the invisible world of the spirit filled with Cameronian rock ’em, sock ’em pulpy action. Created to conquer hearts, minds, history books and box-office records, the movie — one of the most expensive in history, the jungle drums thump — is glorious and goofy and blissfully deranged.
[All emphasis mine for the rest of this blog post]
You can read my bolding in pairs. Decades—years is the first pairing and rightfully emphasizes the massive gestation period of “Avatar.” Natural—software is the next and emphasizes the same idea that Dargis points to more subtly in her choice of “bloom” over “blossom”—Cameron is embracing the idea of a hyper-artificial portrayal of things (and that may not be so far from hyper-artistic). Emersonian—Cameronian expresses Dargis’s understanding of where Cameron is coming from but also, I think, the fact that he prizes the audience’s experience over everything. Emerson, after all, wrote many of his speeches sentence by sentence without much care for whether those sentences made perfect logical sense when pasted together. Emerson knew how to thrill his audience on a moment to moment basis.
The last pairing is exciting not because of the meaning of the words but simply how they are arranged. I bolded “hearts...records” not because it is especially exciting in its form but because it is the traditional way to write a list: with commas. Compare that list to the crescendo of Dargis’s lead paragraph, it comes in her last phrase. Using “and” in a list instead of commas—especially a list in which the last item is “blissfully deranged”—is a go-to method for rallying readers. To prove that simply say “glorious, goofy, and blissfully deranged” out loud then say it the way Dargis wrote it. Which time made you sound more excitable, more blissfully deranged? (This method is called polysyndeton, the “hearts..records” list is more asyndetonic. I’m only providing this information if you’re interested in making your vocabulary more snooty. Some folks are into that sort of thing.)
A MORE BRIEF RUN DOWN:
“The story behind the story…”
Because: Repetition ties things together and our minds like that. Emerson LOVED that.
“… one still capable of producing the big WOW.”
Because: Using all caps RULES and is hated by prudish writers.
“…a fast 2 hours 46 minutes,”
Because: Using a direct opposition to assure us that a movie that long actually feels fast delivers the strongest recommendation per word in the whole review.
“Although “Avatar” delivers a late kick to the gut that might be seen
as nihilistic (and how!), it is strangely utopian.”
Because: Dargis has established how thoroughly she has considered what “Avatar” signifies and can toss in some cheesiness to offset a serious term like “nihilistic.”
“— for this is, above all, a boy’s rocking adventure, if one
populated by the usual tough Cameron chicks —“
Because: You can’t tell but I’ve bolded the em dashes—or, as I like to call them, racing stripes for your writing. Dargis uses them all over in this essay and this is a substantial example of how she perpetuates the readability of her long sentences. Qualifying phrases as asides like this (usually between comma, dashes, and to a lesser extent parenthesis) is called an appositive and is among the only literary critical terms worth using in real life.
“…he remains bound, contractually and existentially, to the base camp,”
Because: In the midst of a deft summary, Dargis checks in to reassure us that she’s still discussing both what happens in the movie and what it means.
A cartoon of masculinity, Quaritch strides around barking orders like some
intransigent representation of American military might (or a bossy movie director).
It’s a favorite Cameron type, and Mr. Lang, who until this year had long been
grievously underemployed, tears into the role like a starved man gorging on steak.
Because: Quaritch IS an actual, animated cartoon! He IS a representation of how the military like to be represented! Cameron IS a intransigently bossy director! Saying it’s a favorite Cameron type is a well played jab at Cameron’s ego. The last line is simply well executed, old fashioned simile.
“…those members of the Michael Bay demographic who might find
themselves squirming at the story’s touchier, feelier elements,
its ardent environmentalism and sincere love story,”
Because: Dargis efficiently delivers a silly image into our minds. Also, critics who attack problems in the industry even when not treating Bay’s work directly are doing righteous work. Fairly, Bay is relevant because he is the poor man’s James Cameron. Perhaps the master’s return to the scene will banish the usurper—or at least hurt his Blue-Ray sales.
On the face of it there might seem something absurd about a movie that asks you
to thrill to a natural world made almost entirely out of zeroes and ones
(and that feeds you an anticorporate line in a corporately financed entertainment).
Because: The bulk of the subjects in the review are present here in some way. An unusual use of the word “thrill” highlights the effort needed on the viewer’s part to warm up to this crazy movie fantasy. “Natural..zeroes and ones” recapitulates that pairing from the first paragraph. The anticorporate—corporate bit portrays the problem of
that Cameron is certainly a symptom of just as he may be, only MAY be, a potential solution to it. Hollywood
If there is one problem with the whirlwind style of Dargis’s review it would be that there is little respite from her maximalism. It never really becomes a problem, the reader’s focus is never lost, but some variety is lost. For instance, she waxes overzealous in just how many references to other big
Hollywood endeavors (but only in THE WORST MOMENT).
THE WORST MOMENT:
It’s also familiar because, like John Smith in “The New World,”
Terrence Malick’s retelling of the Pocahontas story, Jake has discoveredBecause: Dargis brings other big budget blockbuster aspiring works up in this article but this one seems too tossed in. No one in the English speaking world needs a reference to one of the botched Colin Farrell epics to understand what
I’d like to emphasize the small size of this quibble, however, and I think I’ll let THE NUMBERS say the rest.